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New law aims to reel in fishing violations

Fishers say resources need to be protected; current rules are a ‘slap on the wrist’

Fishing rods wait for a bite along the Uku-mehame shoreline on Friday. Gov. David Ige signed a new law on Wednesday that would create a flexible, tiered system of fines for fishing violations and allow the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to recommend probationary terms to the courts for some offenders, including restricting them from entering the ocean or streams. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Darrell Tanaka has heard the same story one too many times — a fisherman gets caught using an illegal net, they head to court, “get a slap on the wrist” and pretty soon they’re back out on the shore doing the same thing again.

“It’s actually worth the risk for them to catch their fish illegally, sell it, and so what? They just pay the small fine,” said Tanaka, a recreational fisherman who lives in Haiku.

That’s why Tanaka sees a new state law that increases penalties for fishing violations and allows state officials to recommend that some offenders be restricted from entering the ocean or streams as “a game changer” that will force people to think twice before overharvesting fish, lobster and other aquatic resources.

“It’s nobody’s right to abuse the ocean. It’s a public resource,” Tanaka said. “And if they’re going to be selfish about it, take the punishment that’s coming.”

House Bill 1653, which was signed into law by Gov. David Ige on Wednesday and takes effect July 1, would create a flexible, tiered system of fines based on the type of specimen caught illegally and whether it’s first-time or repeat offense.

When a person is ordered to perform community service instead of a fine, the new measure allows the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to recommend activities, such as coastal cleanups or beach restoration.

The department can also recommend to the court that defendants get probation with terms that include restrictions on entering the ocean, estuaries, rivers and streams; engaging in certain fishing activities; using certain fishing gear or boating equipment; and taking or possessing certain aquatic species.

“I think this would be particularly effective for those serial poachers or people who have continued to break the law undeterred by monetary fines,” said David Sakoda, Commercial Fisheries Program manager for DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources. “Being restricted from going to a certain ocean location or possessing certain fishing gear is a major deterrent and I think if people know that they face those potential penalties, then they may think twice about breaking the law.”

Currently most first-time violations result in a $100 penalty but often amount to less due to plea bargains in court, Sakoda explained. Prosecutors could charge each specimen caught illegally as a separate offense, but “it’s a lot of work,” and they’re usually consolidated into one offense instead.

“This often results in penalties that are disproportionately low in relation to the value of aquatic life unlawfully taken,” DLNR told state lawmakers in public testimony on the bill in April. “For example, a defendant who has unlawfully taken five specimens will often receive the same minimum penalty ($100) as a defendant who has unlawfully taken a single specimen of the same species.”

With the new law, instead of charging defendants for five separate offenses, prosecutors could charge one offense and add up the penalties based on the number of fish, Sakoda explained.

For example, violations involving a threatened or endangered species currently carry a fine of up to $5,000 for a first violation, up to $10,000 for a second violation and up to $15,000 for a third or subsequent violation.

The new law allows additional fines for each threatened or endangered specimen taken — up to $5,000 or the retail market value of the specimen, whichever is higher, for the first violation; up to $10,000 or the retail value, whichever is higher, for the second violation; and up to $15,000 or the retail value, whichever is higher, for the third or subsequent violation.

“This would just expand the toolbox that prosecutors and courts have to deter fishing violations,” Sakoda said.

Like many fishers and divers, Tanaka notes far fewer fish in the ocean than when he first started spearfishing 30 years ago.

“We’ve seen the declines and it’s amazingly bad,” he said. “So fishermen have been promoting for better management for many years now. But it’s been a slow-going process. … We do need strict regulations and strict punishments. It’s the only thing that’s going to turn things around.”

Tanaka fishes all over the island but generally heads to the north shore. He’s seen plenty of illegal netting and taking of undersized fish, as well as people posting illegal catch on social media.

“The courts, they don’t generally implement large fines for small infractions and understandably so,” Tanaka said. “Nobody should be going to jail for one undersized tako. But why not just ban ’em from the ocean? That in itself will teach people a lesson more than any small fine will ever do.”

Brian Yoshikawa, manager of Maui Sporting Goods in Wailuku, has been fishing and diving in Hawaii for more than 50 years. He said some of the most common violations he sees are people catching lobster that are undersized, out of season or the wrong sex. The rules are there for a reason, Yoshikawa said, pointing out that the closed season for lobsters allows them a chance to reproduce.

“Taking them when they spawning kind of cuts out the next crop for seven years, which is what it takes to get a harvestable legal-size lobster,” he said.

He pointed out that the early Hawaiians also carefully regulated gathering protocols, basing their rules on spawning seasons and the abundance of certain resources.

“The ancient Hawaiians knew that without having protocols in place to ensure enough fish for them to eat, they would starve,” he said. “They did not have Foodland or Costco to go buy their fish. They had to go harvest it or farm it, and if they didn’t do it in a manner that was sustainable, they would go hungry. The old Hawaiian regulations were probably a lot stricter than what we have now.”

Yoshikawa said that restricting people from the water for breaking the rules is nothing new, recalling a case some years back when a judge banned a fisherman from the ocean for two years for catching lobster out of season. The man, who’d been selling the lobsters to buy drugs, took the time to clean up and turn his life around, Yoshikawa said.

When asked about the bill infringing on people’s rights to access the ocean and shoreline, Sakoda said the courts “have discretion and due process” to decide the consequences.

“I think when defendants are found guilty of crimes, their rights of freedom are taken away,” Sakoda said. “It’s exactly the same. If a defendant is charged and has their due process and is convicted, certain freedoms can be taken away. Maybe not jail time, but restriction from certain activities. That’s the consequence of breaking the law.”

As for whom enforcement would fall to, DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement Chief Jason Redulla pointed out that in Hawaii, any law enforcement officer can enforce laws and rules. While natural resources violations fall primarily to DOCARE, it does not preclude the Maui Police Department or others from taking action if they see violations.

MPD spokesperson Alana Pico referred comment to the state, saying that “this falls under DLNR jurisdiction.”

“However, MPD would assist if DLNR requests our assistance,” Pico said in an email Thursday.

To view the full text of the bill and fines by violation, visit www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2022/bills/HB1653_SD2_.htm.

For more information on state fishing regulations, visit dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar/fishing/fishing-regulations/.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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